Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Property Rights again

Chris says he is surprised that Tim and I:

... in denying that people have some kind of natural right to the fruits of their labour... are throwing out the libertarian baby with the Marxist bathwater.
Tim made a:
purely consequentialist point about how we should evaluate the extant and/or proposed rights to property that we grant through both the law and societal means.
I argued that there is a natural right to the fruits of one's labour:
... it is fair that someone experience the consequence of their actions
I didn't mean to imply there was a simple dichotomy between "full private property on the one hand and a totalitarian hell on the other", rather the word I've added emphasis to in the following was meant to have full weight, un-emphasised:
... every time there has been an attempt to radically impose the imaginary agency of reward for effort, there has been genuine horror: totalitarianism, oppression, secret police, prison camps.
Chris does, though, point up the problem that exists with this subject for Marxists:
the Marxist says: “people are entitled to the full fruits of their labour, so profits are theft.” The libertarian says: “people are entitled to the full fruits of their labour, so taxes are theft.” The arguments are philosophically similar.
But the libertarian leaves it at that. The Liberal accepts that there are externalities and injustices that make some intercessions necessary, but still places the greatest possible weight on personal autonomy. The Marxist has to go on to say, as Chris does:
If you’re going to argue that the case for property rights rests only upon consequentialist arguments - do they encourage creators? [this was Tim's argument] - then the difference between classical liberals and revolutionary Marxists such as myself comes down largely to merely empirical questions. Is this really the case?
I fear that it is, if one rests the case for property rights purely on consequentialist arguments. The implication of this, of course, is that we are now discussing the consequences of policies towards private property and if a case can be made for the removal of it all by the state, then this is what can happen, with full moral justification. That's why I don't like the consequentialist argument.

The further implication of Chris's last quote above, and the reason why it's a problem for Marxists, is that this contradicts the view that the worker is morally entitled to the full fruits of their labour - that is, that they own the full output of their labour and the capitalists aren't entitled to any of it. This point was made by Dan Waxman at the Oxford Libertarian Society blog recently, and I've pointed it out before. You might also want to read his latest post on the subject of property rights. He concludes:
The point is really that when opponent of property say "private property is a social construct," they do so in a very misleading way. They don't really mean that it is wrong or meaningless to attempt to evaluate different property regimes independently of their social context, because, on pain of accepting the legitimacy of segregated housing (something that, to their credit, opponents of property do not frequently do), they happily engage in such evaluations themselves. What they usually do mean is that they disagree with the particular pre-political standards of morality that proponents of private property endorse and would rather use their own; and this is a perfectly coherent position to take (although of course I disagree with it), just one that is not compatible with blunt assertions that private property is simply a social construct.
My initial post talked about agency, in the context of a post by Norm. I see the same thing, that I think is an error, in this post, also by Norm (emphasis added):
Yes, one can assess the justness or otherwise of a legal system. But penal justice doesn't exhaust the field of what we mean by justice. There's also what we call distributive justice. And unless one has no thoughts at all about how resources are allocated within a society, where burdens and benefits fall, one must hold a view, explicit or implicit, about whether wealth and income are justly distributed or not. That's not only about the meaning of words; it concerns the normative principles at work within a society, what they are and what one thinks they should be.
The first "are allocated" and the second "are justly distributed" represent the shift that concerns me. In the first instance, there's a mixture of things - inheritance, earnings, luck, skill - that do not mean there's been a wholesale control of outcomes by the state. In the second instance, that's just what is meant. This is sleight of hand.


AntiCitizenOne said...

So where does that leave single Tax LVTers like myself? We see property rights as useful inventions to allow the state to grant monopolies on use, however we see these monopolies as externalities that should be taxed and the tax returned to people equally as a dividend.

Peter Risdon said...

For one thing, you can distinguish between different sorts of property rights. Land ownership is affected by issues like inheritance and ancient acquisition by force. It's perfectly reasonable to take the line you describe to this type of property.

Intellectual property is affected by the fact we all have to stand on the shoulders of giants if we are to progress (which weighs against IP rights) on the one hand, and the claims that are made that for people to innovate they need to own the fruit of their work on the other.

Rights over property we create ourselves, the fruit of our labour, is the main focus of my posts.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Peter, I was just going to say what you said in your second post to square the circle with AC1's comment.

Truly private property arises with little or no state involvement, from natural skills, luck, hard work and free exchange between consenting adults, and in a perfect would world would not be taxed at all.

Land ownership and other monopoly rights (such as IP, 3G licences, airport landing slots, any industry that benefits from state compulsion and barriers to entry, such as auditing, banking, asbestos removal) is fair game for taxation IMHO.

Or else the state removes the compulsions and restrictions (and hence windfall profits to incumbents) on e.g. housebuilding, airport building, scraps the need for a statutory audit, taxpayer guarantee for deposits.